Last week, the SEC, ACC and Big 12 athletic conferences announced plans to proceed with fall football despite the risks of Covid-19. While the decisions made by these football conferences were undoubtedly controversial, the chancellors of these big-time colleges could still reasonably defend their choice by arguing it was consistent to their overall approach to offering live education.
Earlier today, however, the University of North Carolina announced its plan to shift all undergraduate classes for the remainder of the semester to remote learning, citing the rapid spread on campus of Covid-19 almost immediately upon the beginning of fall semester classes. This about-face by the leadership of the University of North Carolina severely undercuts the strongest argument in favor of proceeding with fall football during the current health pandemic.
According to the University of North Carolina’s own website, the decision to shift from live classes to remote learning just one week into the fall 2020 semester came after Campus Health Services reported a significant rise in positive Covid-19 tests. At present, at least 177 UNC students are in isolation, and 349 are in quarantine.
While no information has been made available today about the Covid-19 transmission rate among North Carolina football players, one could reasonably presume that Tar Heels football would face an equal, if not higher, risk of contracting the virus than the student body overall. This is because, in addition to attending class, UNC college football players are also in close physical proximity to one another during workouts and practices.
As discussed in a recent Wisconsin Law Review article entitled “College Football in the Time of COVID-19,” there are at least six reasonable “guideposts” that colleges need to consider when deciding whether to offer college football during the current pandemic. Among them, “colleges should never pursue a course of action that exposes college football players to greater COVID-19 risk than the student body overall.” This means “schools that are continuing to offer many of their classes online during the fall 2020 semester should not be scheduling live football games.”
The reason there are such great concerns about ensuring that colleges protect the physical well-being of their football players is that colleges naturally have a strong financial incentive to offer college football during a pandemic given the large sums of money derived from broadcasting elite college football games. In addition, unlike NFL football players, college football players are not represented by a union—thus, schools arguably owe a heightened duty of care for these students.
At the University of North Carolina, chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz and executive vice chancellor Robert Blouin will now have to make the difficult decision of determining whether the shutdown of live classes should mean the immediate halt to the school’s fall 2020 football season. At the same time, leaders at the other ACC member colleges will need to think seriously about whether they want their college football players to be traveling to the University of North Carolina’s campus given this latest coronavirus outbreak.
These will not be fun decisions to make. Then again, few decisions are fun in the time of Covid-19.
Marc Edelman (Marc@MarcEdelman.com) is a Professor of Law at Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business and the founder of Edelman Law. He is the co-author of the Wisconsin Law Review article “College Football in the Time of COVID-19” and numerous other sports and education law articles.
— to www.forbes.com